When envisaging Hong Kong the first image that comes to mind is a bustling metropolis, a distinguished skyline, a hub of culture and a leading financial sector. Arguably you would not be wrong; those who are lucky enough to have experienced the city or call it home would no doubt advocate for its unique, buzzing and dynamic environment. Notably, the city has been most recently understood in terms of the protests and demonstrations to protect its judicial system from encroachment by the looming shadow of Mainland China. It’s colonial legacy shaping its democratic values and principles. But under the façade of a global city, that advocates for sovereignty and free speech, another trap looms – inequality.

Kowloon and Hong Kong. Credit: Lichunngai (CC0 1.0 Universal)

Hong Kong has encountered growing disparities between the rich and poor since the 1980’s. The rapid economic growth it experienced, which allowed it to become the modern city we idolise today, has helped the rich become richer – whilst a growing underclass has been increasingly left behind. A study by Mok (1999) identified how Hong Kong’s inequality is not just significantly higher than Western countries, such as the U.S and U.K, but it is even higher than that of developing countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and The Philippines.  As the skyscrapers have risen, a token of prosperity, they have produced a smokescreen to shield poverty from view – an issue that is only worsening. An open economy system enabling the ‘Crazy Rich’ to become even more elevated, as identified by Oxfam’s recent Hong Kong Inequality Report (2018). This found that the Gini Coefficient used to measure societal inequality was at a record 0.539 in Hong Kong in 2016, in comparison to 0.411 in the United States. In terms of households, this equates to the monthly income of the top 10% being 44 times that of the poorest. A wealth polarisation facilitated by untaxed stock dividends of HK$23 billion belonging to the most affluent (Forbes). However, it is not just the business men of Hong Kong that hold wealth, the state itself is noted as having a surplus of HK$690 billion and yet social welfare spending is significantly low in comparison to other developed countries (Oxfam, 2018).

“Monthly income of top 10% of wealthy households is 44 times that of poor households”

(Oxfam, 2018)

This inequality is no more apparent than in access to housing. Luxury apartments stand in stark contrast to cage homes, the only option for many. A symbol of the neo-liberal market system, which has allowed for the maximisation of profits through private real estate. The low corporate taxes and minimal regulation that has brought the business tycoons to Hong Kong’s shores may have produced an image of a flourishing economy, but access to this elite world is far from the reality for many. An urban landscape presenting ambition to the outside world shrouds the existence of the physically confined and economically restricted that lie beneath. With estimates of 200,000 people living in the squalid sub-divided units – referred to as ‘Coffin Cubicles’ because of the inability to stand up (SCO). This current housing crisis, manifesting as a product of the lack of affordable housing alongside a reduction in accessible social housing and insufficient state support, is a tangible divide between the rich and the poor. It throws up larger human rights questions about what is deemed an acceptable way of living, with the minimum wage or basic welfare assistance (CSSA) failing to afford citizens good or even adequate conditions in a city with a soaring cost of living. Yet absurdly a recent study by the Society for Community Organisation (SCO) has found how, at an average cost of HK$2000 per month.

Cramped cage homes are in fact more expensive per square foot than the cities luxury apartments – signifying the exploitation of the cities most vulnerable by the unregulated private rental sector.

Boxed in: life inside the ‘coffin cubicles’ of Hong Kong- in pictures. By Benny Lam (2017). Source: The Guardian

An even more extreme form of social exclusion that has arisen from Hong Kong’s housing and inequality crisis are the growing numbers of homeless that occupy the city- a phenomenon that peaked during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, due to rising levels of unemployment. This crash, a consequence of inflated property markets – was far removed from the vulnerable population it impacted the most. Signifying the expendability of those at the bottom of the ladder in favour of economic growth. Homelessness continues to be a significant problem with an estimated 2000 homeless people living in Hong Kong from 2017-2018 (SCO). What has now become a growing concern is the development of the working poor, with a large portion of the homeless population in employment, yet still finding themselves marginalised. Whilst the state has stepped in to subsidise homeless shelters run by NGOs, there are not enough beds to meet demand with a mere 600 spaces (as recorded by the Social Welfare Department). This hands off approach by the state, with responsibility left to the NGOs, has been described as “kind of a rejection from the government” (Geerhardt, 2008, p.69), deeming homelessness a problem that isn’t worth serious political investment. Furthermore, structural inequality driven by markets that are built to serve the super-rich, means that what was once considered a temporary 3-6 month solution to help get people back on their feet has become a necessity. With nowhere else to turn but the street, or (if they can afford it) dehumanising cage homes, many are inventing their own solutions.

‘McRefugees’. Source: Shiu (2018)

Internet Cafes or McDonalds restaurants provide a cleaner, cheaper alternative for Hong Kong’s homeless. Their 24-hour opening times mean they offer a safe, warm space to spend the night; this has made them a permanent solution for many. In fact it has become such a common occurrence that the terms ‘Cyber-homeless’ and ‘McRefugees’ have been coined to label these innovative groups.

Ironically the golden arches, a symbol of expansive global capitalism, shine above the very individuals that Hong Kong’s market-driven society has failed the most. 

When McDonalds is considered the better option clearly there is something rotten at the heart of the system. As the state is failing its citizens, they are silently reclaiming commodified space as their own. A study from 2017 by the Society for Community Organisation explored the lives of these McRefugees, unearthing some interesting findings. Key statistics include the discovery of 384 McRefugess across 73 McDonalds restaurants, a dramatic increase from previous estimates. With more people citing the inability to afford rent (36.5%), in comparison to a lower number of people for whom unemployment (26%) had led them to turn to McDonalds for crucial shelter. Interestingly of those interviewed many were elderly and many were also highly educated, demonstrating the wide-reaching nature of the housing crisis (Ka-chun, 2018). The death of a woman in a McDonalds in 2015, while customers ate around her, sums up the invisibility of this demographic – a forgotten class that blends into the background of a lively city.

‘McRefugees’. Source: Coconut Hong Kong (2018)

As a consequence of Coronavirus and the desire to protect the health of its workers and customers McDonalds have now significantly shortened their opening hours. This has left McRefugees in a perilous situation with nowhere to sleep but the street, shop fronts and parks. Crowded public spaces and a lack of sanitation placing them at great risk of catching the virus, with susceptibility further increased by an overrepresentation of both the elderly and disabled. Yet again this discreet and disposable existence has come to light in the current global pandemic. As Coronavirus sweeps across nations, it is magnifying systemic inequalities within societies. The debate over a human right to space and adequate living conditions is now more crucial than ever. Cage homes provide an equally worrying situation, with crowded rooms featuring upwards of a dozen people creating the perfect environment for the rampant spread of disease. Transmission across borders by jet setting middle and upper classes will have a disproportionate impact on the poorest and most marginalised.  Yet little to nothing has been done by the state to address this heightened level of precariousness that the most vulnerable have to face. Whilst citizens are warned not to gather in groups larger than four and the affluent migrate to their ivory towers, this is clearly just not an option for this invisible class. 

The Coronavirus pandemic is exposing the deep-rooted inequality that exists within Hong Kong; with space to self-isolate being a luxury not all can afford.

Times of disaster are known to intensify community support systems and facilitate fundamental changes in societal norms. Covid-19 has meant that the homeless in London have suddenly been provided with accommodation. Whether this will translate into longer-term structural change is questionable, but it demonstrates how what was once deemed unachievable is now possible. Rather than recreate its deficit-reduction plan following SARs, which perpetuated inequality through cuts to public spending, maybe now is the ideal moment for Hong Kong to follow by example, change its ethos and reach out to its citizens that have been falling through the cracks.

References

Forbes. (2018). The World’s Billionaires 2018. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/billionaires/list/#version:realtime_country:Hong%20Kong (Last accessed 24th March 2020)

Kornakowski, G. (2008). The Reconceptualization of Homeless Policy and the Social Welfare Response of Non-Governmental Organisations in Hong Kong. Japanese Journal of Human Geography 60(6): 53-76.

Shiu, K.-c. (2018). What should we do about our ‘McRefugees’? Available at: https://www.ejinsight.com/eji/article/id/1788072/20180313-what-should-we-do-about-our-mcrefugees (Last accessed 28th March 2020)

Mok, T.K. (1999). Eradication of Hong Kong Poverty. Hong Kong: Joint Publishers Ltd.

Oxfam. (2018). Hong Kong Inequality Report. Available at: https://www.oxfam.org.hk/tc/f/news_and_publication/16372/Oxfam_inequality%20report_Eng_FINAL.pdf (last accessed 24th March 2020)

Society for Community Organisation. (2019). Research. Available at: https://soco.org.hk/en/information/report/ (last accessed 27th March 2020)

Notes:

  • This article was originally written as coursework for GY438 Cities and Social Change at LSE in spring 2020.

About the author

With a passion for environmental and social justice issues, Ella Watson has recently completed her MSc degree in Environment and Development at The London School of Economics and Political Science, after previously studying BA Geography at the University of Leeds. This blog post produced as part of the module ‘Cities and Social Change in East Asia’ investigates the equal right to the city of Hong Kong. Thus, furthering her interest in social inequality and the human right to adequate housing and living conditions.